Political-Economy and Inflation

Paul Krugman devoted his column two weeks ago to the conduct of economic punditry as if the economy were a nineteenth century morality play: sermons about “debasing” the currency, longings for gold, fretting over inflation at the nadir of an economic crisis, a masochistic enthusiasm for “belt tightening” (“Misguided Monetary Mentalities,” The New York Times, 12 October 2009, p. A23). Taking off from this, Matthew Yglesias makes the point about the degree that class-parochial interests play in purportedly objective economic analysis (“The Monetary Hawks,” ThinkProgress, 12 October 2009):

… I would suggest that divergent analysis is in part driven by things that have relatively little to do with analysis. … if we have four or five years of near-zero inflation and 9-10 percent unemployment that will be fine for prosperous middle aged people and devastating to the interests of the poor and the young. Conversely, if we have four or five years of modest unemployment with four or five percent inflation, that will be fine for young people and poor people but potentially detrimental to the interests of wealthy people sitting on large piles of savings. Ultimately, I don’t think it helps the progressive cause to ignore the class / ideological elements to this dispute and just pretend to be engaging in a neutral technocratic dispute about the correct application of the Taylor Rule. What we’re talking about, after all, is decision-making under conditions of moderate uncertainty. What the hawks are proposing to do is to implement a policy that’s extremely attentive to minimizing downside risk to the currently wealthy whereas Krugman is proposing a policy that’s [attentive] to minimizing downside risk for people with below-average labor market prospects.

The problem is that we’ve adopted a manner of speaking about economic issues denuded of any mention of interest. The language of popular economics today is categorical: a strong dollar is good, a week dollar is bad; stable prices are good, inflation is bad; low unemployment is good, high unemployment is bad; rising house prices are good, stagnating or falling house prices are bad; et cetera. But none of these factors are categorically good or bad (few things in life are). What is omitted is the “for whom” of these characterizations of good and bad. Low employment may be good for job seekers, but high unemployment is good for employers: they have their pick of workers when hiring and they hold the majority of the bargaining power in wage negotiations. A strong dollar may be good for Wal Mart and their customers, but it’s bad for General Motors and their employees.

Real estate maintains some knowledge of contraposition with their talk of a buyers’ market versus a sellers’ market. We do not speak with a similar respect to the value of the dollar: of an investors’ dollar (strong) versus a producers’ dollar (weak) or an importers’ dollar (strong) versus an exporters’ dollar (weak). Or in employment, some people might think getting a raise or ease in finding a job are good, but these are what someone else might call labor price inflation (bad).

Economics isn’t free of the language of interest per se, so much as of one particular set of interests. The propaganda victory of the economic interests of Wall Street, the investing class, large business is so complete that their economic preferences have become de facto the whole language of economics. The awareness of the interests of all other economic actors has been totally expunged from the language of economics — well, not totally: there is the disciplinary ghetto referred to as heterodox economics, an exception that proves the rule.

To have asserted control over the linguistic territory is to have banished the political dispute; to have disappeared from the lexicon is to have ceded political legitimacy. Disputes over the political mixture of the interests of one economic class versus those of another are no longer about one set of economic relations versus another, but now take place in the frame of a rational economic order versus chaos, unreason and decline.

A firm separation between economics in its positivist, scientific role and economics in its normative, polemical and political role should be vigorously policed. Or perhaps economics is simply to value-laden, too embedded in the hurly-burley of human affairs for such a division to be tenable. Perhaps we should dispense with the notion of economics as a hard science in favor of a thoroughgoing political-economy. Even if we admit the possibility of a purely positivist economics, all that economics can do in our political deliberations is serve as a speculative tallyman of the opportunity costs of various policy options. The primacy of politics should come to the fore whenever economics crosses over from the academy to the public realm.

Target values for economic factors represent a political compromise between contending societal factions. The most well known of these is the NAIRU, the trade-off between inflation and unemployment codified in the statutory guidance of most of the world’s central banks. But inflation isn’t an unqualified evil. Its primary evils are that it has a tendency to run-away and, related, that it breeds uncertainty (a certain anticipatable regularity to the future is necessary to the function of capitalism). It used to be well known amidst the working (and indebted) classes that a certain amount of inflation served their interest and that “sound money” was merely the rallying cry of the investor class. The class conflict of easy versus sound money used to be a significant fault line separating progressive from conservative, populist from whig. Hence the advocacy of arch-populist William Jennings Bryan of an inflationary policy of bimetallism or “free silver” in the election of 1896.

There’s talk today about how vile it would be for the government to attempt to inflate away its debt (“debasing the currency” they call it), but the government doesn’t only inflate away its debt, it inflates away all dollar-denominated debts. A couple of years of higher than target inflation might be good for a country that has seen twenty years of galloping gains for the investor class, but racked up unsustainable amounts of debt among the middle and working classes. The investing class would scream bloody murder, but not because 3-5% inflation would be the end of economic reality as we know it, but because it would be a wealth transfer from creditor to debtor.

When Realpolitik and Principle Converge

Apropos my two previous posts about keeping non-proliferation goals in the mix with democracy permotion, Matthew Yglesias spells out the logic for why this is probably not tenable (“Engagement With a Post-Crackdown Iran,” Think Progress, 23 June 2009):

The hope behind an engagement strategy was that the Supreme Leader might be inclined to side with the more pragmatic actors inside the system — guys like former president Rafsanjani and former prime minister Mousavi. With those people, and most of the Iranian elites of their ilk, now in open opposition to the regime, any crackdown would almost by definition entail the sidelining of the people who might be interested in a deal. Iran would essentially be in the hands of the most hardline figures, people who just don’t seem interested in improving relations with other countries. Under the circumstances, the whole subject of American engagement may well wind up being moot.

So maybe the realpolitik and the principled position have converged here. All-in with the dissidents may be the only option that can produce progress on the nuclear issue at this point.

Petrified Onions

The latest controversy to sweep the blogosphere is the outing of previously pseudonymous blogger John Blevins, a.k.a. Publius by Ed Whelan (Whelan, Ed, “Exposing an Irresponsible Anonymous Blogger,” The Corner, National Review Online, 6 June 2009; Blevins, John, “Stay Classy Ed Whelan,” Obsidian Wings, 6 June 2009; Whelan eventually apologized, “My Apologies to Publius,” The Corner, 8 June 2009). This prompts some musings on the subject of on-line personae by Matthew Yglesias (“The Metaphysics of Pseudonymity,” Think Progress, 9 June 2009):

And of course it’s a fallacy to assume a perfect identity between any Internet persona and its author(s). A whole bunch of different writers collaborate on producing Think Progress and they write in what I think is a pretty uniform voice. But like the writers behind The Economist, they’re actually all beautiful unique snowflakes who are often quite different from the TP persona. And by the same token, Matthew Yglesias “in real life” is not the same as the character I play on the Internet. On the other hand, I’m not sure it’s quite right to say that the in-the-flesh [ME] is “real” and the on-the-Internet one is somehow “fake.” This blog has existed for over seven years now, and it’s almost certainly the case that more people “know” the persona than know me. And I think that should hold all the more strongly for any prominent pseudonymous bloggers. The well-known, stable character is a person with integrity, influence, a personality, a reputation, social connections, etc., the same as anyone else. To be sure, they may be artifice in terms of the presentation of the character. But our various “in real life” self-presentations (to a boss, to a first date, to family, to friends, to people we run into at a high school reunion) involve artifice as well.

In the past you body was at least the skeleton on which your personae hung. They depended on you to take them places, to animate them. The dutiful son only existed at the family get-together, after which he was de-emanated. The nightclub alter ego only came out to play when the costume was dawned.

Media personae persist. In the era of mass participation mass media, your personae don’t need you anymore. They’re out there, being recreated by anonymous onlookers while you are sleeping.

The Hegemony of Neoliberalism

A roundup of some recent thinking on the hegemony of neoliberalism:

  1. Taking off from what Matthew Yglesias calls “Prestige Cross-Pollination1 and Ezra Klein “The Tyranny of the Economists,”2 Mike Konczal at RortyBomb relates of the,

    … “credibility gap” between sociologists and economists, even when they deploy the same methods, when it comes to the public debate over the issues we face.3

    It helps to have a paradigm, and in recent years economics has rather forcefully acquired one.4

  2. In his review of Steven Teles’s new book, The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement,5 Henry Farrell makes a brief assessment of the state of the tyranny of the bureaucracy:

    If you win the technocrats (and [the law and economics movement] arguably has won the technocrats), then you very nearly have won the entire game.6

    This strikes me as about true. The shift rightward of the economics and policy intelligentsia since the New Frontier / Great Society heyday of Keynesian fine tuning has played a significant part in the general right-ward drift of the polity. There aren’t exactly dais upon dais of unreconstructed Keynesians offering policy makers intellectual cover on the Sunday morning shows.

  3. Via Charles Mudede7, Steven Shaviro reacts to Peter Ward’s new book, The Medea Hypothesis: Is Life on Earth Ultimately Self-Destructive?8 Using the purported instability of ecological systems — one of the paradigm cases of self-organization — Mr. Shaviro sets himself against emergence, evolution, complexity, network theory, et al. He identifies Friedrich Hayek as one of the key thinkers of self-organization — the market would be one of the other paradigm cases —

    But the most significant and influential thinker of self-organisation in the past century was undoubtedly Friedrich Hayek, the intellectual progenitor of neoliberalism. … inspired by both cybernetics and biology, Hayek claimed that the “free market” was an ideal mechanism for coordinating all the disparate bits of knowledge that existed dispersed throughout society, and negotiating it towards an optimal outcome. Self-organization, operating impersonally and beyond the ken of any particular human agent, could accomplish what no degree of planning or willful human rationality ever could.9

    Friedrich Hayek, cyberneticist.

Combine these three and where are we for policy making and policy debate?

  1. Yglesias, Matthew, “Prestige Cross-PollinationThink Progress, 2 June 2009
  2. Klein, Ezra, “The Tyranny of the Economists,” The Washington Post, 2 June 2009
  3. Konczal, Mike, “Economists, Methods and Government,” RortyBomb, 3 June 2009
  4. The Future of Economics is Here: The Arational and the Irrational,” This is Not a Dinner Party, 28 September 2008
  5. Teles, Steven, The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement: The Battle for Control of the Law (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008)
  6. Farrell, Henry, “Fabians and Gramscians in Law and Economics,” Crooked Timber, 30 April 2009
  7. Mudede, Charles, “Self-Made,” SLOG, The Stranger, 28 May 2009
  8. The Medea Hypothesis: Is Life on Earth Ultimately Self-Destructive? (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009)
  9. Shaviro, Steven, “Against Self-Organization,” The Pinocchio Theory, 26 May 2009

New York Bagels

I see that over the weekend there was much consideration of the issue of New York and Bagels. Matthew Yglesias comments (“The Stuff that Matters,” ThinkProgress, 28 November 2008):

I’ve now lived in DC long enough that I forget how much I like real bagels. But then I come back to New York for Thanksgiving and the whole sad little fantasy universe I’ve constructed for myself in which DC’s bad bagels aren’t a big deal collapses.

Kevin Drum does a little wondering as well (“Bagels!,” MoJo, 28 November 2008)

It’s hard for me to remain on topic here because Washington, D.C. is such a miserable hole of a city. It would be hard to come up with a single factor in which New York was not vastly better of a city. The only reason that anyone tolerates D.C. is that it’s the political and intellectual capitol of the country.

That said, whenever I go to New York I have a list of things that I want to do and every time it includes bagels. This visit included bagels on two out of three mornings. My friend has been living three blocks from Tal Bagels so it has been pretty convenient, but on other visits I have commuted for bagels.

I’ve heard a number of the theories (the municipal water), but I’d have to say that I think it’s a gestalt. The bagels themselves are better: crunchier on the outside, chewier on the inside. But the schemers are better too (we brought back a tub of the olive cream cheese and another of the tofu, which rather than being some vegan concession has a flavor zestier and brighter than the cream cheeses). And most important is the ambiance. Woody places with a bunch of working-class artisans in black pants, white t-shirts, white aprons, and white paper hats, with a lot of hurry and attitude is different than the hired gun Ethiopians at Au-bon-Pan. A bagel shop is a stylized thing in New York. The cream cheeses are arrayed in gigantic bowls under glass, along with a host of other Jewish foods: smoked fish, knishs, couscous salads.

My favorite bagel places in New York are Ess-a-bagle (359 1st Avenue, Manhattan, New York 10010, official site here) and Tal Bagels (977 1st Avenue, Manhattan, New York 10022), both very Jewish, and The Bagel Store (247 Bedford Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11211), a Williamsburg hipster joint, but still unbelievably good.

The Democrats Reborn?

I’m trying to keep up my jaundiced eye here, but I feel like tonight I have seen a Democratic party unlike any I have seen before in my lifetime. Walter Mondale was perhaps the last of the old guard still to possess some fight, but after that, not Dukakis, or Clinton, or Al Gore or John Kerry. They all seemed too timid, too poll tested, too cowed. First last night in Joe Biden’s speech and then again tonight in Barack Obama’s I heard a Democratic party unbowed, spirited, confident.

Senator Biden’s introduction by his son and his own discussion of his family was surprisingly emotional and seemingly so for everyone involved. His speech was the version of values that Democrats should be putting forward, it was tough on foreign policy, and unlike Democrats for the last eight years, effortlessly sincere, uncontrived. As Matthew Yglesias pointed out (“It’s Biden,” ThinkProgress, 23 August 2008), the selection of Biden for VP “signals as desire to take the argument to John McCain on national security policy” and deliver to voters “a full-spectrum debate about the issues facing the country rather than a positional battle in which one party talks about the economy and the other talks about national security.” In Joseph Biden I think I first, finally saw a different, rejuvenated Democrats.

The same was true for Barack Obama’s speech tonight. His cadence was off in places, but it was defiant, pugilistic and signaled to me that the Senator has absorbed all the right lessons about the campaign. I think many of the myths that have plagued the Senator as well as the party at large for the last few weeks have been definitively left behind after tonight. It showed some of the populism that worked so well for Al Gore in the final weeks of the 2000 election. My favorite part, like with Senator Biden, was when Senator Obama took the foreign policy issue by the horns:

You don’t defeat — you don’t defeat a terrorist network that operates in 80 countries by occupying Iraq. You don’t protect Israel and deter Iran just by talking tough in Washington. You can’t truly stand up for Georgia when you’ve strained our oldest alliances.

If John McCain wants to follow George Bush with more tough talk and bad strategy, that is his choice, but that is not the change that America needs.

If Chris Matthews waxing rapturous is any indication, then he achieved everything he needed to do. After Chris Matthews, what more can you ask for? Who knows, maybe even Maureen Dowd will write a positive review. I think McCain’s speech a week from now will look pretty wooden in comparison.

My only concern is as, I think it was Patrick Buchanan said last night, after a week of the Republicans ripping into Senator Obama next week, the Democrats may regret going so easy on Senator McCain. Alternately, Democrats may finally have learned that you have to run your negative stuff stealth.

The Most Terrible Power of All Concentrated in One Man

In response to a reader question, Matthew Yglesias says that if President Bush so decides, there is nothing anyone can do to prevent air strikes against Iran (“By Request: What if Bush Bombs Iran?,” TheAtlantic.com, 1 July 2008):

… if Bush orders air strikes against Iranian targets, nobody can stop him. A plain reading of the text of the U.S. Constitution would seem to suggest that it would be unconstitutional for the military to follow any such order absent a declaration of war or some other form of congressional authorization. But the settled precedent, ratified by key Democratic Party leaders as recently as the bombing of Serbia during the Kosovo crisis, is that no such authorization is necessary. I’m not happy with this situation and think it’s crazy that we as a country have moved away from the constitutional procedure, but the cat’s been out of the bag for a while now and if Bush wants to bomb Iran Bush will bomb Iran.

Democracy is based in part on a notion of the wisdom of crowds — or in the negative formulation, it is based on the recognition of the perfidy of powerful men. It is terrifying to think that when it comes to the most fateful questions facing a nation — the most terrible expenditure of the nations resources a country might undertake, one that throws the very survival of the country into the pot, one capable of completely remaking the social order of a people — we have abdicated that power to a single man.

On the right there is this constant carping about the founders’ intent, originalism, strict constitutionalists and activist judges, but when it comes to this issue, perhaps the most gross violation of the founders’ intent and the plain language of the Constitution, Republicans are complete subscribers to the cult of the great leader — at least until that power passes to a Democratic president, that is.

This is one of the reasons that I like The American Conservative. They actually see this situation for the massive threat to American liberties and the American way of life that it is.

Some future president, less ambitious, more moderating, ought return to the traditional confines of the office and forfeit this unofficial power. And a Congress more attune to it’s Constitutional duty than to it’s party platform ought to reassert this prerogative by threatening impeachment to any president who dares usurp it.

Story of a Biker

Here’s how it works with bikes: first you don’t know how and don’t get those guys who dress like Indy cars with spandex diapers (Yglesias, Matthew, “Bikes,” TheAtlantic.com, 6 November 2007). Then some stupid user taunts you about being fat and lazy (Bloix, “comment,” TheAtlantic.com, 13 April 2008). So you buy a bike (Yglesias, Matthew, “Prepare for Bikeblogging,” TheAtlantic.com, 23 April 2008). A mere ten days later: I’d say that was some pretty effective taunt. Next thing you know you start getting all in the activist mentality and really enjoying it (Yglesias, Matthew, “Segway Boom,” TheAtlantic.com, 16 June 2008).

Life in a Northern Town

Matthew Yglesias makes a point about U.S. cities that just hurts (“SoCal Tragedy,” TheAtlantic.com, 7 May 2008):

The thing you really forget about the deplorable land use and development patterns in southern California (and the Soutwest more generally) until you come back out here is how goddamn nice the weather is, a fact that takes the situation out of the realm of farce and into tragedy. You know what a good place to never walk anywhere would be? Boston or Chicago in the winter. Or maybe DC or New York in the summer. That’s some nasty weather to be walking around in.

But LA would be a great place to walk or ride a bike to work all year ’round. But it’s our bad weather belt that has the walkable cities, and our sunny and temperate all the time region that barely has sidewalks.

I have lived more or less my adult life in the Northwest, Seattle, briefly New York and for the last five years, Washington, D.C. I often consider the possibility of moving someplace nice. S., who doesn’t desist in sweater wearing until the temperature hits about 80 degrees, does so more often than me. But as soon as you start considering someplace nicer, you run into this impenetrable wall that everyplace in the sunbelt sucks. I’m not about to live in the old South or Texas for cultural reasons. Miami is physically very beautiful and almost serviceable from the standpoint of urbanism, but is one of the U.S. capitols of superficiality. And the entire Southwest is a wasteland of suburban environmental destruction.

How did this come about that the nicest parts of the country have nothing by way of great, people-friendly cities?

And then I think, even if Los Angeles were physically nice, would you really want to live there? I’m somewhat prone to those theories of cultural determinism based upon the temperate bands of the earth. The sun imposes a certain physicality which is why Los Angeles and Miami are the twin boob job capitols of the country and why, for all its avowed prudery, the old South is a hotbed of sexuality run amok (the counter-argument here is the ancient Mediterranean: both sunny and intellectually vibrant). I have somewhat just resigned myself to being a hunkered-down, rained upon northerner.

Appearance and Reality in World Power

I can’t recall the last time I marked up an article as heavily as I did Parag Khanna’s gloss on his forthcoming book (“Waving Goodbye to Hegemony,” New York Times Magazine, 27 January 2008). Among the comments I wrote, one was to object to Mr. Khanna’s observation that “America’s standing in the world remains in steady decline,” by noting that the apex of U.S. power was in 1945 and it has been in relative decline ever since.

Matthew Yglesias had the same thought (“Fare Thee Well, Hegemony,” TheAtlantic.com, 31 January 2008) and it prompted a response from Daniel Drezner (“Hegemonic Decline, Revisited,” 31 January 2008):

Yglesias is completely correct that the U.S. had nowhere to go but down after 1945 — a year in which we had the nuclear monopoly and were responsible for 50% of global economic output. Nevertheless, the U.S. resurgence in the nineties was not an illusion. The simple fact is that all of the potential peer competitors to the United States — Germany, Japan and the USSR — either stagnated or broke apart. At the same time, U.S. GDP and productivity growth surged. The revival of U.S. relative power was not a mirage.

Robert Farley at Lawyers, Guns and Money has an interesting follow-on as well (“A Momentary Lapse of Hegemonic Decline,” 1 February 2008).

Was there really a breakout in U.S. power in the 1990s? Or was that just how it felt inside the United States, subject as we were to so much triumphalist propaganda? I don’t think that it was a perception limited to the United States. A lot of the world freaked after the U.S. managed to topple the Taliban in a month without breaking a sweat and then topple the Iraqi regime in three weeks. Breadth of perception aside, the question remains, was it any more than that: mere perception?

It strikes me that power can be illusory. As I have been reading about the Cold War and nuclear strategy, it has struck me that perhaps the Cold War was a massive illusion, that one state, the Soviet Union, was in fact a hollow power all along. We tend to think very pragmatically of power and its perception as somehow conjoined. But it’s hardly unproblematic. If power cannot be illusory — both hidden and exaggerated — than for what have we been spending the untold billions that we have on the National Intelligence Establishment?

This possibility first struck me in the early 2000s some rich guy snapped up a decommissioned former Soviet submarine and parked it on the waterfront in Seattle (it is presently on display at the Maritime Museum of San Diego). The day I went on the tour, there were two sailors onboard the submarine: one a salty, retired old U.S. diesel submariner, the other a sailor on loan from a Los Angeles class attack submarine (I thought he said it was the USS Indianapolis, but the years don’t line up) in for maintenance at Puget Sound Naval Ship Yard. They plowed us with the stories of two generations of submariners as we stood in the control room. The older gentleman told us of ruptured eardrums when they blew the tanks. The younger kid got all worked up contrasting this Soviet boat with his own. The two were laid down and commissioned within two or three years of each other, yet the Soviet model was a design still based on captured German U-boat plans, was diesel powered, could only remain submerged for a few days and had to surface to recharge its batteries. The Los Angeles class submarines are nuclear powered and routinely remained submerged for the entire duration of months-long tours. And the Soviet submarine was tiny: it displaced 2475 tones submerged versus 6927 tones for the Los Angeles class. The illusoriness of Soviet power didn’t strike only me. This young sailor seemed quite impressed by it as well.

Of course, this submarine did go out to sea with 22 torpedoes, two with nuclear warheads, which would have been more than adequate to take out a carrier battle group, provided this tin can could get close enough to actually fire them.

Nonetheless, I walked out of the tour flabbergasted. This was the enemy that we spent trillions to deter? The U.S. was silently cruising the oceans in state of the art nuclear submarines while the Soviet Union was hard-driving two generations obsolete models based on designs stolen at the end of the Second World War!? Was the idea that a Cold War had been joined a huge ruse managed by a Soviet Union never really a peer competitor?

Sure, they managed to deploy 40,000 nuclear weapons — a real threat — but some have suggested that this staggering number was in part because the Soviets never decommissioned a weapon and that many were undermaintained, unlikely to detonate were they to reach their target, sitting atop rockets that may never have got off the pad if the order were given. Further, this too may have been the wrong proxy for real military power. The thing about nuclear weapons is that once the initial hurdle has been passed, they are relatively cheep. In fact, it is one of the theses of William Langewiesche’s book The Atomic Bazaar is that in the Twenty-First Century nuclear weapons may become the weapon of the poor. A state that can’t field a respectable army may still command a few dozen nuclear armed missiles.

Looking past nuclear weapons, the Eisenhower administration assessed U.S. forces superior to those of the Soviet Union on a unit basis, but adopted its policy of massive retaliation nevertheless because it believed the United States and the NATO powers incapable of fielding conventional forces in numbers capable of meeting those of the Soviet Union. Despite increases in the quality of Soviet forces through the 1970s, by the 1980s U.S. military planners were figuring that the United States would be able to defeat the Soviet Union in Europe without resort to nuclear weapons. The Wohlstetter-Iklé committee report, Discriminate Deterrence (1988) included the confident but controversial recommendation that in an era of smart bombs and cruise missiles, the United States could afford to move away from nuclear toward conventional counterforce.

But the Soviet Union is only a more genial example of the possibility of illusory power. What of the breakout of 1990s? If there was a breakout, it was, as Mr. Drezner points out, both economic and military.

When the histories of the 1980s and 1990s finally get written, those periods may go down as a time when ebullient ephemera obscured a deepening crisis of economic fundamentals, a period of various asset bubbles distracting analysts from increasing instability. If the United States were to be subject to a massive and sudden correction in exchange rate and interest rates were to come to represent the real risk that institutions are taking when investing in the U.S. economy, then the story of the 1990s would be rewritten to be more like that of the 1920s: one of lawlessness, decadence and pride before the fall. The story of the 1990s will probably even have to be reconsidered in light of monetary policy finding itself, as it increasingly is, caught between the pincers of flat economic growth on the one side, but a significantly increased propensity to inflation on the other, namely to say that there was no increase in productivity, that we were merely exporting our inflation.

A certain portion of the boom of the 1990s may have been real, but recall that the great mystery of those decades is if there really was an up-tick productivity, why did it not register in the statistics? It seems just as probable to me that the productivity miracle of the 1990s may just as well have been built upon the collapse of the 40 hour work week under Exempt status creep, underreporting of actual hours and the “disciplining” effect of the tacit threat of outsourcing. If there were any increases in productivity, its fruits were all captured by the ultra-rich. Average wages have been nearly flat for thirty years now whereas it has been adequately demonstrated at this point that during the 1990s real income growth only came for the top fractions of a percent of U.S. households.

In the military column, a lot of the technologies and systems that are synecdoche for U.S. power in the 1990s and 2000s are the culmination of fairly old developments. The first laser-guided bombs were dropped at the tail end of the Vietnam War. The first experimental satellites in the NAVSTAR GPS constellation were launched in 1978. Debates about whether to proceed with the development of the Tomahawk cruise missile peaked under the Carter administration. The contract for the F-117 was awarded in 1975 and the first one entered service in 1983. The B-1 bomber was actually deployed in the early 1980s to fill a gap between the phase-down of the B-52 and the eventual deployment of the planned B-2 stealth bomber that was then experiencing development difficulties (it eventually entered service in 1993). The Patriot missile was developed in the late 1970s and first deployed in 1984.

These systems came together impressively first in the war with Panama and then most memorably in the First Gulf War. But it would be hard to argue that this was a sudden development of the 1990s. More plausibly, the 1990s represent a continuum of increasing U.S. military capability. Continuity hitherto is, of course, hardly an argument against the existence of a subsequent discontinuity. But whether capabilities on paper can be translated into real power on the ground is another question and in Iraq and Afghanistan we are finding out the bloody and expensive way that all our hardware has done very little to ameliorate the problems of bringing about a desired political objective through force. While effective against asset-heavy, bureaucracy-dependent modern states, in an era of net-centric, open source and guerrilla warfare such assets are quite nearly useless. This was already on display in the Vietnam War but with the United States now unable to subdue Iraq, a country with a tenth its population and four tenths of one percent its economy — with the actual enemy comprising three orders of magnitude less than that — one has to wonder how much of a breakout in global power the 1990s actually were for the U.S. As the constant waffling of U.S. strategy in Iraq back and forth between over-reliance on air power attacks and the Petraeus plan of small operations demonstrates, no precision munitions are accurate enough, no surveillance technology sensitive enough for counterinsurgency warfare and there is no substitute for the old, labor-intensive ways of the Army (and blood-intensive, least anyone be confused about what “labor” is a euphemism for here). And there, growth in relative strength has been much closer to linear, if it has grown at all (no discontinuity). In fact, as I suggested in a previous post (“Iraq and Vietnam; Civil Wars and Asymmetric Conflict,” 5 October 2007), Iraq and Afghanistan may be trend, with usable relative power actually on the decline.

Call it the seduction of the spectacular. Apparently shock and awe has been more effective against us than it has turned out to be against our enemies.